June 14, 2012
Crisis Communications: When Silence Is Your Choice, You Should Still Be Prepared
By Michael Fineman, President, Fineman PR
In our crisis communications practice, our recommendations and our clients' responses run the gamut — from telling the story first before someone else tells it with an unwanted twist, to responding to false charges with credible information, to a wait-and-see approach. Each situation is different depending on its seriousness, its stage of evolution, its potential for reversal, and its legal ramifications, among other factors.
With the threat the Internet and social media pose for broadcasting bad news, our public relations counsel often errs on the side of positioning our clients as forthright and ready to tell their side of the story. That counsel notwithstanding, there are still plenty of decision makers who decide to take the approach of "Wait it out; say as little as possible and keep a low profile," typically guided by the assumptions that people have shorter attention spans, that today's news media are covering less due to diminished resources and/or that anything said will make the organization a more visible target. The hope is that the crisis will go away soon enough on its own with nary a notice, so nary a word need be said.
And, guess what? Sometimes that's true, and sometimes it's the right guess.
Let's say, though, that the situation doesn't go away, that your organization's bad news begins capturing a critical mass of attention among significant markets. How much of your organization's — and your own — personal reputation are you willing to risk without being prepared for a worse (or worst case) scenario?
In these situations, here's the minimum organizations should have in place to be prepared:
- A worst case scenario plan — articulating the issue's implications, how the crisis could occur, what to say and how to say it if it does occur, who needs to know and in what format
- A just-in-case, brief foundational statement so that a "no comment" is not provided for possible media inquiries and which can serve later, potentially, as the basis for evolving developments
- Key messages and/or talking points for any potential audience that may need a response
- Monitoring of all traditional and social media channels (including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube) for awareness of new wrinkles, to gauge momentum of the issue, to identify messaging opportunities, and to assess impact
- Key word listings for monitoring and for those searching for the organization's point-of-view
- Selection and preparation of spokesperson (for worst case or near-worst case scenario)
- Access to and coordination with legal counsel for any potential communications or anticipated developments
- Updated or creation of a Media Policy and Social Media Policy, both related to guiding employees' individual communications about the organization or on the organization's behalf
My experience tells me that for any number of reasons, clients and their attorneys may need to orient their communications closer to the vest than communications counsel ordinarily prefer. Even so, there is still room – and it makes good sense — to be, at the very least, minimally prepared in the event of volatile and unexpected developments.